The clerk of works


There are people of impeccable good taste whose houses are symphonies of elegance and charm. Yet how many cases can you cite where the house is testimony to the good taste of a third party who has created a masterpiece in spite of those who dwell therein?
It’s at this point that I’d perhaps mention Tildus Thallawell, said by many to the best lawyer in Port Naain. ‘Best Lawyer’ is an unusual title. Don’t assume that it might hint at some superior moral virtue, or even that he’s the one who supports most generously worthy causes, such as poetry, the queen of the arts. As ‘the best’ he merely wins more cases than his contemporaries.

Thanks to a long and successful career he is now ‘comfortably well heeled.’ Less generous men than me might use the phrase, ‘unfeasibly wealthy’ and the actively unkind might describe him as ‘stinking rich.’ Still he is wealthy enough to pander to his little foibles. One is that if he feels that a house isn’t in keeping with the neighbourhood he’ll call in artisans and have it altered. Now you might consider this to be perfectly commendable and wish there were more folk like him. When he differs from other, less forceful philanthropists, is that he does it to other people’s houses.

The main instrument through which he exercises his philanthropy is Gisset, his Clerk of Works. Gisset is a man in early middle age, his hair is thinning and he can wear upon his pleasant enough visage a perpetually worried expression. He affects a tail coat of unfashionable cut, somewhat battered through hard service, and is rarely seen without his maladroitly rolled umbrella.

The process through which Tildus Thallawell exercises his benevolence is simple. He will visit a house for some reason, or perhaps just walk past. He will spot a feature which he feels spoils the look of the house and therefore the ambiance of the area. He will ponder the eyesore and work out how it should be rectified. To be fair to Master Thallawell, neutral observers contemplating the ‘before’ and ‘after’ always agree that his solution is indeed correct. Personally I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume this agreement is due to artistic excellence, not the risks involved in contradicting a leading lawyer.

Still, once he has decided upon his solution, he will merely summon his clerk of works, Gisset, and instruct him to organise the remedy. Initially Gisset tried to work through conventional channels, but discovered to his sorrow that many people were not merely unwilling to have the work done, they grew ever more obdurate in their refusal the more he tried to cajole them. So with his master’s permission he decided on a new and somewhat revolutionary approach.

The first thing he does is to put together an appropriate team to tackle the work. His list of tradesmen is select. Those who work for Gisset are not merely masters of their craft, they are swift and efficient. He also has the names of other, less widely advertised specialists as well.

So the first thing to do is to get his team ‘on site’ as the professionals like to say. This will often involve having a locksmith (or member of an allied trade, such as a burglar or assassin) open the doors to let them in. The site visit will be conducted in as close to absolute silence as is possible. The job will be measured up, all the details worked out and then the team will leave with their ‘locksmith’ closing the doors behind them.

I first met up with the team when they were at the mansion of Madam Rastan. She was a lady I was vaguely acquainted with, but couldn’t claim to know well. At the time I was helping out my good friend Artin Lopogar, pieman. People would send orders and I would deliver them. It kept me busy around dinner time, but back then I had few patrons of my own who needed morning visits.

Both Artin and I were surprised to get an order for twenty meat pies to be delivered to the mansion of Madam Rastan at an hour after midnight. There were strict instructions to be prompt and arrive at the side door, without knocking. The order was paid in advance so I agreed to deliver. I confess that I was fascinated to know what a otherwise respectable lady wanted with a score of meat pies in the middle of the night.


Were the pies of offal

I’d suspect clients unlawful

Rogues off the street

Or a pogonophile

But these pies are meat


I arrived carrying the pies in a box well packed with straw to keep them warm. Even as I approached the door a lookout had obviously spotted me and I was allowed in. Gisset and his team were at work. Tildus Thallawell had taken offence at a marble statue which ‘graced’ the main atrium. Gisset and his team had taken it down off its plinth and were busily engaged in installing a different statue. It was actually the same figure, but done in bronze. Gisset and his team had been in a week earlier to take make a mould of the marble original.

When I arrived the team stopped and in total silence helped themselves to my pies. Then suitably fortified they resumed their work. Ten of them left with me, carrying the marble statue shoulder high like mourners at some outlandish funeral. Apparently when the owner of the house came down the next morning, the only comment he made to the butler was to congratulate him on how clean the atrium was. It wasn’t until the following week that the substitution was noticed. The maid whose duties included cleaning the statue (For obvious reasons Madam Rastan insisted that the job be done by a married woman) applied to the housekeeper for brass polish, and commented that she didn’t know what the world was coming to with marble turning to brass overnight.

My next contact with Gisset and his team was as a ‘delayer.’ Tildus Thallawell had taken umbrage at the staircase in the Mortwheel residence. He felt that it was too small, mean, and needed replacing with something grander in marble. Gisset put together a small team to reconnoitre and then came back to his master with suggestions. Together they drew up the plans and Gisset put together a larger team. On this occasion he had the staircase made in sections with the idea that the sections could be slotted together rapidly on the spot.

Still, he and his team calculated that they needed a lot of time. For one thing, paint had to dry. So he arranged for the Mortwheel family to be invited out of town for a couple of days. As he expected some of the staff asked for leave to visit their families while they weren’t needed at the house. This was of course granted by a generous employer.

There remained three members of staff who remained in the house. One was arrested on a charge of smuggling and was held for three days before being release with apologies from the watch. Another found himself contacted by an old flame and was lured from his duty to dance light-footed along the primrose path of debauchery for three days. The final member of staff succumbed, at last, to a soporific added to their drink and slept the three days.

Virtually the minute the family left the house the team arrived. The old staircase was torn out and the new one fitted during the first night. The grim wooden stair that clung pathetically to one wall became a sweeping marble construction that came down to the centre of the room. It was a vast improvement. One happy side effect of the new staircase was that it effectively blocked the one, rather small, window. So even as the staircase was being fitted into place men were knocking through and putting in two much larger and nicer windows, one each side of the stair.
Next came the decorating, including repainting the ceiling mouldings. These had been a hideous orange and green. One can only assume that whoever had done the work had hated those who lived in the house and could think of no more malevolent way to display their hatred and contempt. At the same time the wooden floorboards were ripped up and marble tiles laid to complement the stairs. On the last day came the cleaning. All cement and paint was dry and the finishing touches were in place. This included the entire contents of the cupboard under the stairs being replaced in virtually the same position in the somewhat larger cubby-hole under the new staircase.

All this time the ‘delayers’ were in place. Each of us was issued with a young child and our purpose was to halt the Mortwheel family should they show signs of arriving home early. I, as a poet, was to stop the family and present a single flower and an ode to Madam. Frankly until I saw her I didn’t feel confident in producing the perfect ode, but it would have been something like this.


Accept this flower

Which doth empower

Your beauty.

Yet torn betwixt

The blossom eclipsed

Most cruelly

By just one tender smile


As I did this the child would hurry off and alert both the next ‘delayer’ and also get word to Gisset.

As it was, I was not called upon to act. The task was completed to Gisset’s satisfaction and I and my fellows were paid off even before the Mortwheel household returned.



It is entirely possible that you have overlooked the various collected stories of Tallis Steelyard. If so I feel duty bound to help you remedy the sad gap in your library

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.




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